There are some cities in the world where I can’t help but think about its troubled past. I lived in London for two years where its ugly post-war buildings are a constant reminder of the blitz. I have spent several months in Budapest where you see plaques everywhere inscribed with 1956. Ho Chi Minh City is another one of those places for me.
For a long time my only association with Vietnam was with the war. Having spend four month here so far I am now associating Vietnam more with food and coffee. Still, there are places in HCMC that continue to remind me of its dark past.
When I arrived here in September 2012 I read about the recent death Malcolm Browne, who took the photo of the self-immolating monk. After reading that article I was soon reading more historical websites and found that many familiar photos from the Vietnam War (or the American War as it is known here) took place in Saigon.
I have have compiled some of those photos here and visited the place where they took place.
The self-immolation of buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc – 1963
[Self Immolation of Quang Duc - AP Photo/Malcolm Browne]
On 10 June 1963 buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc set himself alight in protest over the governments treatment towards Buddhists. After reading the article about Malcolm Browne and the burning monk photo I wondered if there was a monument for Quang Duc. I wasn’t expecting to find anything as there aren’t as many war monuments as I thought there would be in the city. So I was surprised to find one of the most impressive memorial parks to one person I have ever seen.
[Quang Duc Memorial]
The Venerable Thich Quang Duc Monument is at the intersection of Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street and Le Van Duyet (previously known as Phan Dinh Phung and Le Van Duyet.) The whole corner block has been given over to a memorial park. There is a statue of the monk in flames, and like in the picture his body is calmy sitting in the lotus position and his face unflinching.
A photo series of the self-immolation can be found at Time LightBox – Malcolm Browne: The Story Behind The Burning Monk.
General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner – 1968
[Execution of Nguyen Van Lem (Bay Lop) - AP Photo/Eddie Adams]
On February 1st, 1968 during the Tet offensive General Loan shot Viet Cong prisoner, Nguyen Van Lem (also known as Bay Lop) in front of NBC News film cameras and photographer Eddie Adams. It was Adams’ photo that went on to become an anti-war icon, and turned the tide of opinion against the war.
This photo has been the most elusive to track down exactly where it took place. Records I found say he was shot at the An Quang Pagoda in the Chinese district of Cholon (District 10). I found no street reference but I went out to the Pagoda anyway.
[Su Van Hanh Street, District 10]
Cholon is an interesting place to visit with lots of markets and Chinese temples, and if you are visiting Ho Chi Minh City it makes for a change of scene beyond the tourist sites of District 1.
[An Quang Pagoda]
Helicopter Evacuation – 1975
[Helicopter Evacuation at 22 Gia Long Street - Photo: Hubert van Es]
This photo is often assumed to be of Americans evacuating from the US Embassy during the fall of Saigon, which is incorrect. This photo was taken the day before the fall of Saigon. The building is an apartment at 22 Gia Long Street (now 22 Ly Tu Trong Street), and the evacuees are Vietnamese who were working for the US government.
As Saigon is modernising at such a rapid pace I wondered if this buidling still existed. I went by 22 Ly Tu Trong Street and there is an old apartment block there, but from the street level is is not possible to see the rooftop. You could see the roof if you are in an office in the Vincom Centre, the shiny new office block on the other side of the road. Seeing I have no access to an office I walked around the to the next block and found that you can see the rooftop if you are standing outside of the old post office near the Notre Dame cathedral.
[Rooftop of 22 Ly Tu Trong Street with the Vincom Centre in the background.]
North Vietnamese tank takes the Independence Palace – 1975
[North Vietnamese Tank - AP Photo]
On 30 April 1975 troops from the Vietnamese People’s Army entered the city, marking the fall of Saigon and the end of the war. Key buildings were quickly occupied, including the Independence Palace, and this picture of a tank crashing through the gates of the Independence Palace came to symbolise the fall of Saigon.
[Reunification Palace Gates]
Today the Independence Palace is known as the Reunification Palace. You can still see the same gates as in the photo, and on the palace grounds there is a tank of the same model as in the photo (but not the actual tank).
Australian photographer Neil Davis was in Saigon when the city fell, and he had the foresight to go to the Palace to record the inevitable moment when it would be claimed by the north. His biography, One Crowded Hour, is an excellent read.
US Embassy – 1975
[US Embassy - AP Photo/Neal Ulevich]
This photo was taken on April 29, 1975, the day before the fall of Saigon. A large crowd of Vietnamese are trying to scale the US embassy wall, where helicopter evacuations were taking place. After the fall of Saigon the embassy was abandoned, and it was not until 1995 that the site was handed back to the U.S. government. This is now the U.S. consulate of Ho Chi Minh City. The old buildings were demolished and new buildings were built next to the old site.
While reading up on the history of Saigon I found this photo of US Military Police in a gun battle on Thong Nhut Boulevard (now Le Duan Street) outside the embassy.
[US Military Police forces outside the US Embassy, 31 January 1968 - Franklin M. Davis Collection]
I live half a block from the US Consulate and I walk past it nearly every day. Whenever I walk by I can’t help but think of the history of this place. I walk down the same street where this photo was taken. Sometimes I look at the beautiful tree lined streets and stop to think that there were men with guns hiding behind these very trees. Now this street is the entrance for U.S visa processing, and if you go by on a weekday morning there is always a queue.
There are many places in Ho Chi Minh City which makes me think about what these streets have seen. And there is not a day that goes by when I don’t think about how easy my life is.